Effective Communication Skills: How Can I Use Verbal and Nonverbal Communication Skills To Talk So Children Listen?

Effective Communication Skills: 

How Can I Use Verbal and Nonverbal Communication Skills To Talk So Children Listen?

Jennifer has 3 children ages 8, 12, and 16.

She struggles getting any of them to listen and cooperate.

Any time she tries to have a conversation with one of them about what needs done, they mumble or give her some teen code she has to look up, like “IKR Mom!  D” (Translation: “I Know, Right.”) 

Later, when they don’t do what she asked, she wonders whether they didn’t understand what she meant or she didn’t understand their coded language!

At times,  she finds herself using guilt trips to try to get the children to follow through, but that just seems to make things worse and she finds herself in more power struggles. She doesn’t like arguing with her children and nothing seems to be working. 

She is desperate to find some effective communication skills that will help her avoid learning how to talk teen slang, so her children will listen.

When you have a problem or concern, you need to keep your cool and use non-blameful ways to communicate your feelings. As soon as you threaten or blame, children stop listening and start thinking about how to defend themselves. If you want others to listen to your feelings or concerns, try using one of the following tips for improving communication skills:

  • Attitude adjustment: For any of the following effective communication skills to work, you must express them in ways that are both kind and firm. Watch your tone of voice and body language, so you don’t accidentally send hidden messages of criticism and blame. Word statements in positive terms. Here is an example of two ways to word the same thought:
    • You can’t (play with your friends) until (you clean up your room).” This has an unfriendly tone and uses negative words like “can’t” and “don’t.” Many children would rebel against this power play or test the parent’s challenge. Instead, word the same thought with positive words such as, “When (your room is clean) you can (play with your friends).”
  • Describe the behavior without blaming or judging. Avoid the word “you” if at all possible. Instead of saying, “When you write on the wall . . .” say “When I see writing on the wall . . .” Speak about your feelings and perceptions instead of labeling the other person as “bad” or “wrong.”
  • Acknowledge the other person’s feelings or perspective first before sharing your feelings, opinions, or concerns. This opens the door to communication and reduces defensiveness. This acknowledgment could be the first half of an opening statement. This approach might stimulate a discussion about the other person’s concerns. When we spend the time to help others resolve their feelings or concerns, their behavior often changes, which might automatically resolve our concerns and feelings.
  • Own your feelings. Say, “I feel worried . . .” instead of “You make me worry . . .” Remember, no matter what another person does, we choose our interpretations and feelings about the event. Don’t give your personal power to others by saying they can make you feel something. Remember that anger is a secondary emotion. This means that before you felt angry, you felt something else that built up to the anger. Get in touch with the primary emotion, such as frustration, concern, pressured, and use these words to describe your feelings.
  • Avoid guilt trips. Avoid words like “embarrassed” and “disappointed”. Children interpret “You embarrassed me . . .” as “You are an embarrassment to me . . .” Saying “I’m disappointed in you . . .” is a guilt trip. If children change their behavior it is a short-term solution based on guilt, rather than a long-term change based on the child learning the value of correcting the behavior.
  • Use nonverbal communication codes. This is different than the evil eye. Children tend to respond well to nonverbal communication such as reading lips and hand codes if we explain the codes ahead of time. Children are so grateful when we don’t embarrass them in front of others that they often reward our behavior by cooperating!
  • Give information. Give short explanations to help children figure out how to avoid a problem in the future. For example, saying “Milk spoils when it is left out” or “Wet towels grow mold.” These are quick, effective ways to teach children the reasons behind certain requests. Children tend to cooperate with this more than orders and commands.
  • Use one word. When a child repeatedly leaves the bathroom light on, we can say “Light!” instead of a lengthy nagging reminder. “Sidewalk” can substitute for “Get out of the street!.” Notice, however, I didn’t say, “Street!” We want to remind children of what to do, instead of what not to do.
  • Flash Code Words. This is a one word reminder that a parent and child agree on privately before a problem arises. The word has special meaning to them, but means nothing to others. This way, we can remind children politely and without embarrassment or nagging. For example, I used the word, “Flash” to remind my son to get back on task when cleaning his room. That is where my parenting class students came up with the name for this skill, “Flash Codes.” Like nonverbal communication, children are so grateful they didn’t get a lecture, they reinforce our behavior by cooperating.
  • Write a note. When you are too upset to speak, if you want to add some humor to your statements, or if you won’t be around when your child needs to get a message, write a note or draw a picture. When my son kept forgetting to feed our pets before he watched TV in the mornings, I put a sign on our basement door; it had a picture of the pets and a crossed-out TV with the words “Feed me before TV!

A woman listening to some of these suggestions for effective communication skills during one of my presentations leaned over to one of her friends and whispered, “Right. Like I have time to plan all my words.” If you share her sentiments, add up all the time you spend repeating yourself, yelling, or saying “No” and “Don’t”. Also think about the long term messages your present communication style might be teaching. I admit, new ways of speaking seem awkward and initially take more time to think of and say. However, in the long run, children are more cooperative and self-disciplined, instead of relying on constant reminders. Hundreds of parents who have taken my parenting class can attest to the effectiveness of these communication skills.

P.S. Remember to practice these tools when talking to other adults, like your parenting partner, boss, employees, parents, friends, relatives, etc. Many couples have said these effective listening and communication skills saved their marriages.


For more tips on effective communication with your family and more information about The Parent’s Toolshop® and its unique Universal Blueprint® problem-solving system, take the 7 Keys to Parenting Success ebook. You will be less frustrated, respond more calmly and feel more confident in any parenting situation.

The best part is the ebook is free!  So what are you waiting for?  Get it now!


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop and president of Parent’s Toolshop Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30 years experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She has interviewed many parenting experts on her Parents Tool Talk radio show and is a parenting expert columnist for Chic Mom magazine. She has produced almost 100 multimedia resources, which are available at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.

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